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Rise in Traffic Deaths in 2015 Has NHTSA Searching for Answers

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At a time when automotive technology is leading to safer vehicles, the latest report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicate a 7.7 percent increase in auto-related deaths from 2014 to 2015. Last year, an estimated 35,200 people were killed on U.S. highways.

The statistics show significant increases in deaths of bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists, 13, 10, and 9 percent, respectively. Crashes involving young drivers were up 10 percent, passenger car rollovers up 5 percent, and large truck related crashes were up 4 percent.

“As the economy has improved and gas prices have fallen, more Americans are driving more miles,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a statement. But he added that “94 percent of crashes can be tied back to a human choice or error,” so changing behaviors and promoting crash-prevention technology are crucial.”

It makes sense that the more people on the road the higher the chances of a traffic accident. Another contributing factor is the increase in speed limits across the country. But what about distracted teens (or adults, for that matter)? As I reported in March, 2015,  the CDC released an analysis of teen driving showing that teen drivers are at significant higher risk of vehicle crashes. The NHTSA report does mention a ten percent increase in deaths among young drivers, but, remarkably, says nothing more.

Last year the CDC noted, “The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than among any other age group. In fact, per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are nearly three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.”  Texting while driving and other “distracted driving” issues have been linked to higher crash rates for drivers.

Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, offered a one-word answer when asked about the increase in traffic fatalities.  “Automation,” Hart said. “For 20 years, we’ve been pushing for something that is a collision-avoidance system. That’s step number one, an avoidance system that stops cars from hitting one another.”  (www.washingtonpost.com, 07-01-15)

Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, agreed with Hart’s assessment.  He went on to say that there are proven tools to address traffic safety.  “They include strong laws coupled with highly-visible law enforcement and robust public education campaigns. By using these tactics, the nation saw a nearly 25 percent drop in the number of fatalities between 2005 and 2014, including a record low in 2011,” he said.  (www.washingtonpost.com, 07-01-15)

This is all true, of course, although I think that it will take more than increased police presence, and automation, to permanently decrease traffic crashes and fatalities. The Washington Post article mentions seatbelt use and drunken driving as possible causes for the increase in 2015, but that does not go far enough. There is no mention of distracted driving, an issue previously linked to auto fatalities. How could the ubiquitous presence of technology, specifically handheld devices like smartphones, not be considered by NHTSA, or the Washington Post? They whiffed on this one.


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  1. Matt Gurwell says:
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    Great article and insight, Attorney Webb, thank you for sharing!